Responses to The UNESCO report, Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education

Faculty, researchers, and students from the MLFTC community contribute their own thoughts and reactions towards the recently released UNESCO report Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education, pausing to reflect and imagine the future within their areas of research and practice.

These responses are part of the broader Learning Futures Collaboratives, and specifically connects to the panel discussion convened on February 14, 2022 around the UNESCO report.

My research examines learning to teach and the ways that we prepare general and special education teachers to meet the needs of students with disabilities within inclusive classrooms. As I read the UNESCO report, I feel excited and hopeful! This report celebrates both students and their teachers as global citizens and considers the “transformational potential” of education as a pathway to improved and sustainable futures for every child, youth and adult. I appreciate the firm position that the report takes on education as a fundamental human right. This principle is imperative to me as the right to a free and appropriate public education is a cornerstone of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the legislation in America that ensures students with disabilities are provided the individualized education they need to thrive. In reflection, I am left wondering several thoughts. First, what does inclusive education for students with disabilities look like when reimagined? Second, as special education teacher educators, how do we prepare educators with the knowledge and skills necessary for these spaces? The report challenges institutes of higher education to renew their mission and offers several recommendations which center interconnectedness, collaboration, compassion, and intentional assessments; however, what does the future of teacher education look like when reimagining how teachers might learn to become leaders within these redefined spaces and what policies might need to be in place to help this vision come to fruition?

UNESCO’s (2022) report (hereafter The Report), “Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education,” provides an overview of the current state of education, pointing to the myriad persistent challenges that preclude the achievement of accessible quality education for all. The Report re-examines the foundational principles of education, calls for the elimination of outdated practices, and highlights the need to envision new directions together. In order for learners— children, youth and adults—to receive quality education, we must not hesitate to pursue change, however radical that change may seem. Providing quality education for all is not the responsibility of a single government, organization, or individual; rather, The Report describes this as a shared vision, a “social contract” that everyone must embrace.

One particular proposal advances the view that everyone must participate in building the future of education. For the past few decades, there have been movements that aim to respect indigenous knowledge and to reflect the voices of children, youth, parents, communities and teachers in policymaking, practice and research. Despite such efforts, global and national education agendas are still driven by those with power; short-term and more tangible goals are prioritized; and research methods that are familiar and easy are preferred. The Report urges us not to be discouraged by such realities; rather, it redirects us to the ‘shared vision’ of a world in which peoples’ diverse experiences are respected, ways of knowing are accepted, and voices are heard—regardless of their backgrounds.

In research, the first step should be elevating the voices of the ‘voiceless.’ This includes the marginalized populations with overlapping vulnerabilities (e.g. children and youth, women and the differently abled, refugees and immigrants, to mention a few), whose voices and knowledges are often “unrecognized, uncanonized and omitted” (p.127). Collaborative research projects that are youth-led, culturally relevant, and appropriate should be pursued by researchers (and funded by donors), however complicated and time-consuming they may be. Listening to and including the perspectives of these populations is not a ‘choice’ but a ‘shared duty.’ With such attempts (and also failures), our reimagined future will no longer remain a vision but become a reality.

“Interconnectedness and interdependencies should frame pedagogy” is directly related to holistic education, a framework that meets the needs and recommendations outlined in UNESCO’s report. I aspire to help bring this model into mainstream education. Holistic education is centered around human relationships, connections between subject areas, and awareness of a reciprocal relationship to the Earth. Students are encouraged to develop body awareness and a relationship with their inner lives. Educators integrate themes and learning across subjects. Emphasis is placed on interconnections between students in the classroom, school, surrounding community and the global community. Students learn about their dependence on the vitality of the Earth for their health and wellbeing, individually and collectively. My research focuses on mindfulness, relationships, and creative self-expression in educational settings. These practices encourage inner reflection, discovery of new meaning, and possibility. Students who emerge from schooling with a strong sense of self-knowledge, place in the world, and ability to think critically will flourish and transform society. Moving from a culture of competition into a culture of compassion by creating systems of care for the whole child will enable us to turn vision into reality.

The kinds of big, wicked problems that UNESCO describes—from climate change to systemic inequity—all point to a planet and humanity in peril. These problems need to be addressed, not by doing what’s been done before, but through creativity. Creativity informs all invention, discovery, new knowledge development and offers novel, fresh, multifaceted, diverse approaches, befitting the complex problems we face. Chapter 8 of the report, starting with a quote from Linda Tuhiwai Smith around decolonizing resonated with me. Dr. Tuhiwai Smith’s work points to the need to decolonize research methods and the importance of not being limited by the disciplinary constraints and restrictions to using only commonly known, accepted methods. This chapter makes important comments about decolonizing knowledge and allowing for the reality that Indigenous systems can and do produce credible knowledge, rather than seeing them as merely the object of study. I particularly appreciated the emphasis on the broadening the discourse even while acknowledging the value of standard approaches (such as, quantitative or qualitative, big data, learning sciences, statistical data, evaluation and ranking). This is true to some degree but is not the whole story. David Berliner has noted that for most of its history, educational research has had a case of science envy, preferring to uphold a limited set of research paradigms (i.e., often experimental methods, high quantitative designs are often lauded as “gold standard”, particularly by policymakers). That is not to say that these methods are bad or wrong—but they are only a small slice of knowledge production. This report aims to broaden the call — but it’s also important to recognize that while a range of research methods have happened in education, a small subset of them have received most of the credence as “rigorous, empirical” work. At the end of the day, the references to research innovation presented don’t offer a lot toward really rethinking what has been done before in terms of what research means or could mean. That said, the overall tone and dynamic in this call is one that does speak to inclusion and openness in research approaches and knowledge, and that’s a good thing. If that were to become the case, the potentialities of creativity and innovation in research could begin to move the needle in the right direction of the educational, societal, and global problems we face.

The call for action in the UNESCO report is timely and proposes a fundamental reimagining of education at multiple levels in across the globe. The Covid pandemic starkly exposed the inequities, inadequacies and challenges that has long been a feature of educational systems. Can this crisis be the wakeup call for urgent action that is both innovative in design and transformative in outcomes? The ideas presented in this report would suggest that the answer is, yes!

Issues of equity, inclusion, justice and wellbeing woven throughout this report reinforce the importance of education for our societies now and in the future. The future of learning, the future of work, the future of democratic structures and the future of sustainable life on this planet itself, will be shaped by the changes made to education systems right now. This report points to the need for new knowledge and ideas to shape content and delivery mechanisms, technologies that enhance pedagogy and access to education, and the investments that must be prioritized to realize the ideals articulated here. The framing of education as a social good, places the humans involved—both educators and learners—at the heart of the redesign challenge. The invitation in this report is for people to connect, in solidarity, to take on the challenges involved to create a new and vital social contract for education.

Jordan King
Arizona State University
PhD Student, School of Sustainability and College of Global Futures
Research Assistant, University Design Institute

The UNESCO report, “Reimagining our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education”, positions education as a response to the multifaceted challenges faced by the planet and its people. However, these challenges pose many questions and yield fewer answers. In this context, I wonder if education needs to focus less on deriving answers and more on asking better questions – of ourselves, our relations with each other and the planet, and of how we envision the future.

Taking this approach activates a critical, emancipatory, and pluralistic quest that situates education as one of many drivers enacting transformation. This entails an emphasis on education – and the individual and collective change that it stimulates – as an existential activity. In this case, education is not merely a technical and cognitive pursuit, but engages values and mindsets to enable being and becoming in reflexive ways. Amidst complexity and uncertainty, education is not about having the answers to solve the problem, but about asking questions and demonstrating the resilience and humility to endure the journey.

As the report beckons us to do, let us undertake the work of reimagining education and the futures that it can enable. But in this endeavor, let us also cultivate further dimensions and possibilities for what education can mean and how we negotiate that meaning. To do so, we will need to be honest yet hopeful, audacious yet diligent. Through these qualities, we can come, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke advised, to “love the questions” and “live the questions now” in the present, as we reimagine and remake the future of education.

Maya Angelou is often quoted to have said that education liberated her, and I acknowledge how, as a biracial Queer woman, I too have, in some ways, been liberated through my engagement with formal learning in schools, and later in the academy. In Reimaging Our Futures Together—A New Social Contract for Education, UNESCO (2021) implores us to see education across lifespans as potentially liberating for all. The report encourages us to reimage the future of learning and unlearning by “approach[ing] knowledge as a great human accomplishment” (p. 65). It is an ambitious call for us—as learners and educators and researchers—to interrogate and dismantle persistent power structures, racist and classist institutions, and the damaging extraction of resources across our planet. I want to take up this call and do my part, but I am also left questioning: Education for who, and for what purposes? I think about the refugees, displaced persons and other migrants whom I center in my scholarship and service—most of them, poor, black, brown, and linguistically marginalized. And, I wonder if the reimaged future in the UNCESCO report is for them. I want to believe that it is, and I try to envision how they will participate in what is described in the report as a collective global endeavor. In my ponderings, I return to the full quote by Maya Angelou: “In so many ways, segregation shaped me, and education liberated me.” It is difficult to know if those who have already been shaped by being multiply marginalized and segregated across the globe—whose rights, dignity, and humanity have so often been depreciated—will see themselves in this new social contract, in this call for education to be liberating. I want to believe that they will, and because of that, I am committed to the collective effort demanded by the UNESCO report.

As we look around at the still-unfolding aftermath of the pandemic, the evidence we’ve been tracking is clear: Our students need help now. Students missed many months worth of instruction and suffered socially and emotionally. We must address their immediate needs, but we must also find a way to build a more equitable, nimble, and responsive American education system.

Doing so will require more than tutoring programs and other school-based interventions. It will require an ambitious national vision and goals for rebuilding and a commitment to track progress toward attaining that vision. It will require deep investment in research and development to rethink how we can deliver education and social services in fundamentally new ways. And it will require bold and inspiring leadership to build new constituencies for change across the education, health care, business, faith, and civic communities.

While the kids certainly aren’t all right now, too many weren’t all right before. As we look toward recovery and rebuilding, we must be clear-eyed about what this generation of students is owed, and we must commit to rebuilding in a way that ensures the system is more resilient and prepared for future crises, that builds on positive developments, and that delivers on the potential of future generations of students.

Towards a futures thinking approach: expanding knowledge, data, and evidence
A response to – Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education

Chapter 8 of the UNESCO Report calls out the over-prevalence of educational systems being influenced by the data-driven strategies of the global north, and the potential peril resulting from this myopic approach to global education as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an era anticipating physical, digital, and biological innovations and disruptions at a scale unprecedented in human history.

I would present a further call to action to adopt a Futures Thinking methodology for the research on the futures of education. Through the intentional act of envisioning a range of potential futures, and their implications on global education we can identify threats (including possible existential threats) as well as opportunities. Therefore, I would challenge researchers to enable futures thinking by examining trends and drivers of knowledge and information innovations, build multiple scenarios of possible futures (possible, probable, and preferable) and develop strategic plans backcasting from preferred futures to the present. Through this methodology, the aim is to provide strategic and actionable plans for global leadership to reach a desired state and prevent an unintentional futures in which indigenous and pluralistic knowledge and innovation are ignored, and the existing systems perpetuated around the globe.

In their UNESCO report, President Sahle-Work Zewde and other global leaders have made clear the urgent need to renew our individual and collective commitment to education. From a contractarian perspective, they call for the recentering of humanity in co-constructing a new social contract for a more equitable and just future for all. Their report comes at a time of enduring challenges as human conditions are subjugated by perpetual wars, global disinformation, wealth disparities, and the racialization and criminalization of bodies and knowledge of the systemically marginalized. Prolonged global inactions to attend to such social injustices have been deeply intertwined with an unforgiving global pandemic, which threatens any real actions to explicitly and thoughtfully foster epistemic, economic, political, and environmental justices. The report presents the opportunity to galvanize further discussions, actions, and a collective sense of responsibility for decoloniality, reconciliation, and redistributions of institutional power to reject the totality of the current social contract.

As stated in the report, these efforts must include the diversification of knowledge systems in the production of human, community, and environmental-centered solutions in ways in which progress is no longer measured strictly by standardized test scores or economic productivity, but by how the planet and our most marginalized populations are loved, respected, and cared for. We must revisit the fundamental questions of an education for whom and for what, and foster a grounded approach to elicit the voices of the historically marginalized in both authorship and setting the terms of this new social contract.

We must start this process by deconstructing the present logic underlying the educational systems where knowledge production often teaches students to understand one’s superiority and inferiority and while innovation is conflated with personal profit, career advancement, and other neoliberal tendencies. To this end, I urge educators and public officials to reconsider education as not a humanitarian project but a process towards collective humanity. Instead of calling for replacing the current social contract with another that comes with the same expectational status quo, we need a new, multifaceted social justice contract as a necessary condition for the not yet imagined possibilities of real peace and humanity.

Over two years into a pandemic, we walk a razor tight wire between the promise of what tomorrow could be and a reckoning of social disparity that has divided and left us disconnected from each other, our planet, and what it means to be human. If every system is perfectly designed to get the results it is getting, then why not start with a collective soul searching to answer the question “did we think what we were doing was working and sustainable?” What A New Social Contract for Education keenly points out is that we have a definitive opportunity to move forward together, with education at the core, of a much-needed transformation in our collective attitude and disposition towards life. Rather than define educational attainment in terms of academics and standardized testing, this UNESCO report starts with the premise that education must be first and foremost about our common humanity. It is a stark reminder of what was being lost sight of before the pandemic, that education shapes and builds our future. In this spirit, we must start by asking ourselves what type of future we want for our children and what is required of us to support that vision.

The COVID-19 crisis has also revealed the massive importance of digital connectivity and online platforms – to the extent that we need to begin considering access to information, which is itself also a fundamental right, as connected to the right to education in ways that were not foreseen even a decade ago — Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education

As we look to the future of education, it is clear that education will shift in significant ways towards interactions mediated by technology. There is possibly a lot to be gained through this but only if we also pay attention to the broader social and economic context within which these technologies function. For example, it is important to ask who exactly is in charge of the technologies—the tools, processes, and systems—that support learning in these environments? Will it be a democratic system with local-control or will the educational systems of the future be controlled by a few multinational corporations (with user-bases and budgets larger than those of most nation-states). These corporations, driven by share-holder profit not social good, will create products that are “free/easy to use” and show the “right” kind of results—typically those that are measured by standardized tests. The immense data streams generated through quasi-surveillance technologies (video, keystrokes and more) will be coupled with the power of AI and machine learning tools to sort and rank learners. Teachers and students would have little agency in these systems and there would be little, if any local control, over educational goals. Learning would be defined as technical skill acquisition, with little attention paid to the humanities and the arts. Those with adequate resources will find ways around these corporate systems, though that will not be possible for many, particularly those belonging to historically or otherwise marginalized groups, further exacerbating the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

In 2016 the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) reported that by 2030, if current trends continued, at least 43 countries will not have enough teachers to provide every child with primary education. The report projected that to achieve the goal of universal education 24.4 million teachers were needed at the primary level and 44.4 million would be needed at the secondary level. The prediction, applied globally identifies significant challenges for many regions of the world, highlighting the vast discrepancies in access to quality education for all children. For example, Southern Asia will need 15 million teachers, Northern Africa will need approximately 2.6 million teachers and Sub-Saharan Africa close to 17 million. (UIS, 2016).
If we take into consideration the 2016 report AND we hope to achieve the overarching goals of UNESCO’s latest report, Reimaging our futures together: A new social contract, learners, educators, and the education ecosystem MUST evolve.

Many of the most at-risk countries from UNESCO’s 2016 report are heavily influenced by foreign aid and NGO’s who are often financed to support educational development in at risk countries. Unfortunately, funding in these instances is not always aligned with the needs of the identified country or region, but instead based upon the funding logic of the donor organizations (Silova & Steiner-Hamsi, 2008). Chapter 5 in UNESCO’s report calls for teacher’s work to center around collaboration and teamwork; teachers to engage in the production of knowledge; insurance that teachers have academic freedom; and to include teachers in the design, debate and dialogue in the future of education. If we are to achieve these the calls to action for teachers, success will depend on a very broad system level shift that is supportive of an adaptive education workforce model that is able to respond to the changing contexts as well as changing local and global learning needs.

Play can make a better world! The report states- “it is often said that we might one day live in virtual worlds, but to some extent and in some places, this is already true” (p. 101). Given today’s unprecedented social, economical, and environmental threats, we ask: what will the world look like, or rather how will we create the world we want to live in? In world-building games such as Minecraft, Roblox, Rust, Stardew valley, and the sims, many diverse people are able to embrace their differences and come together to participate towards a common purpose. This could mean either engaging in collaboration, conquering the valley, gathering raw material, or playing for play’s sake. Players are thus able to establish their own social contract in terms of the roles and boundaries they wish to live within. If this is possible in the gaming world, why can’t we do this in reality? Exploring the potentials of such worlds is not so much about groundbreaking technology but about creating spaces and moments of re-creation for shared and playful imagination that leads to hopeful pluriversal futures.

The International Commission on the Futures of Education has produced a critical report: Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education. The Report conveys the urgency of acting with a sense of optimism and possibility and highlights the key priorities that should guide education transformations now and in the future. Concerning teachers, the key recommendation is for teachers to work in teams, to engage in knowledge production, reflection and research. Further, they are called on to participate in public debate, dialogue, and education policy. What is surprising about this report section that discusses teaching is the enormous demands made of teachers and the relative lack of attention to the teacher education curriculum. Examining the curriculum of teacher education cross-nationally can illuminate the learning opportunities that teachers encounter in their teacher education programs. Much learning and improvement can emerge from this exploration (see Tatto et al., 2018). Reimagining the teacher education curriculum needs to be a top priority. It is essential to ask what universities and other alternative routes are doing to educate teachers on pedagogies of hope and action to create agency and solidarity or on the SDG4? Research could illuminate the degree to which future and current teachers are prepared to engage deeply in this critical work during their teacher education program and beyond. Teachers as professionals should be ready to do all that the report list, but we must also be attentive to what teachers need. Teachers’ voice and agency are essential to challenge the prescriptive lists of ‘must do’s” that have characterized top-down teacher policy. Teachers must become leaders, not only as administrators but as leaders in their teaching, research, and public participation.

We’re living in times of continued vulnerability and uncertainty about the future. There’s widening inequality, exclusions, and education is not organized in a way that ensures shared progress that benefits all. The International Commission on the Futures of Education report calls all of us to prevent further disruptions and shape a peaceful, just, and sustainable future. It places education at the core of shaping the future and proposes a ‘new social contract for education’ that can meet the future needs of humanity and the planet.

One thing that stands out in the report is the role of universities and higher learning institutions in re-inventing education to address the common challenges. For instance, it encourages universities to re-evaluate their contribution to knowledge and acquisition since knowledge is constantly evolving. They should resist knowledge hegemonies and embrace diverse ways of knowing or understanding by including perspectives of groups — such as women and girls, minorities, low-income groups, indigenous knowledge/languages — that have long been marginalized. Data and evidence generation, application, and dissemination should also ensure inclusiveness and diversity. Teacher training colleges should also rethink the traditional views of curricula and reimagine them through interdisciplinary and intercultural perspectives that enable learners to engage with diverse forms of knowledge acquisition, application, and generation. Such curricula should foster an appreciation for the inherent interconnectedness of environmental, societal, and economic well-being. The question is: who will take the lead, when should we have a plan of action, and how can we include those who may resist change? However, everyone (individuals, families, communities, institutions, governments, etc.) has a role in transforming education to build a just, equitable, and sustainable future.

As a teacher educator, I see the lifelong development and deep engagement of teacher educators as paramount to sustained substantive transformation. A shift in values and motivation across all levels of education is needed to position K-12 educational systems and students as levers for purposeful change toward overcoming the dominant anthropocentric paradigms and world-wide challenges. The values and principles that underpin education must focus on collective, collaborative, common goals beyond the individual that center achieving just and sustainable futures for the environment and humanity alike. If we are to support the development of teachers to work in collaborative educational settings where students and teachers engage in meaningful action to advance environmental and social justice aims, we must ourselves work in concert with K-12 stakeholders and other teacher educators alike to collectively reimagine futures, engage learners through action-oriented pedagogies, and make lasting change. Further, we must work to promote the status of the teaching profession by actively engaging as public scholars and advocates, particularly as rhetoric and legislation (e.g., ongoing attacks to Critical Race Theory in the US) threaten justice-oriented work that seeks to examine and rectify systemic oppression that cause decreased opportunity, increased vulnerability, or disproportionate harm.

The UNESCO report, Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education, recognizes the important role education plays in tackling global grand challenges. More than simply a state of play, the report lays out a bold plan focused on equity, inclusion, and global collaboration to tackle our most pressing issue. Schools ought to be a model for our broader society and be places of learning where students and teachers feel physical and emotional safety and engage in interdisciplinary, collaborative work that recognizes the value of diverse perspectives and sustainability. This report is an invitation and a call for action. When it comes to education, we are all stakeholders, thus we need to unite our collective experiences, insights, and resources to create change. This report provides the critical foundation for not only reimagining education futures but working to make those futures a reality.